Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Well the Turkey was a big old bird

12 months old to be precise - and purchased at my father in law's country golf club. (This is no country club though - a real golf club where the pressing management issue is how much irrigation water they are allocated and how much it costs. It costs $3000 to water the course!!!)

The guy killed the bird and turned up with it in his esky. It weighed in at 8.3kg or say 18lb in the old language. It fit in the oven at the old-folks home (just).

We never got anywhere near the stuffing - that presumed you could actually carve that far in and on Christmas day there was no need.

That said - brined turkey worked well. The bird was surprisingly two-tone - with very dark meat in the legs and white meat in the breasts.


I tried curing some of the Murray River perch grandad caught using Stefano's orange juice and salt cure. It worked surprisingly well given you probably should cure oil fish and perch is not oily. Stefano swears by butter and sage (and perhaps a little of his salted lard).

Speaking of salted lard I had some and wrapped part of the bird in it. Worked well.


Salad was a simple success - very finely chopped fennel dressed with orange juice, some orange segments, olive oil and salt.

Pudding finished a massive meal.

And a typical family christmas - with all those domestic dramas was had by all.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Turkey out of brine

I have brined chickens for years - but I have never brined a turkey despite all the American books saying that is how you should do it. The New York Times gives a brined turkey recipe every Thanksgiving. Here is one...

Anyway I have now taken the bird out of the brine. Its large - and free range - from some paddock around Mildura...

And I am expecting all sorts of problems stopping it browning too much. Stefano (bless him) has given me some cured lard (belly fat from some female pig) and I will slice it and run it over the bird. I might wrap the legs with foil...

Potatos, sweet potato, pumpkin. A few salads.

Funnily enough in a breadbasket the local shops are awful. Need to work out how I hook into the Italian growers next time I do Chrissy here.

Will let you know how it goes.


When you have been cooking all wrong...

There is a trend in cooking - I think driven by the extreme scientific types - about concentrating flavours.

When Thomas Keller makes a little soup (just a mouthful) from brocolli - the flavour of a whole bunch of brocoli is concentrated in that soup.

When Hestor Blumenthal makes his (fantastic) spagetti bolognaise he has a dozen tricks to make the meat taste meatier - and its all about trace ingredients such a a touch of thai fish sauce and star anise.

And I admit that I used the star anise pretty liberally for exactly that purpose.

So then I go to another style of restaurant. I am staying with my inlaws in Western Victoria so the wife and I went to Stefanos. This is one of the best restaurants I know anywhere in the world. It is better than any in Sydney (including Tets and my favourite Seans Panaroma). Its certainly better than any in Melbourne - and hey it stands up against St Johns in London too.

But Thomas Keller it is not.

The meal was one of delicate balance after delicate balance. The first dish was a cured kingfish.

But I was struggling to work out how it was cured. Everything I cure tastes pretty salty. This did not. But if it was citrus cured you could barely taste the lemon.

It turns out it was cured in the juice of five oranges and 30g of salt. Relatively little salt given the task - and oranges are so much gentler than lemons (though I am determined to try grapefruit).

It was served with capers - but very few. Sort of like the melodrama of putting saltanas in your saltana bran. You want a few - but no so much that there is no surprise when you get the sweetness of one. This was perfect.

There were a few cubes (2mm cubes that is) of beetroot - which struck me as very Australian - but I can't work out why they were there.

My wife - and this was a compliment - described this as so delicate it was almost flavourless. It set the tone for noting subtlety - and that was what was really special about Stefanos.

The next course was the most delicate beef carpacio I have ever had. Not rich - and with some home made mayonaise and a few other odds - truly scrumptious - but without being anything like as overwhelming as the Bourdain Steak tartar.

Then followed zuchini flowers stuffed with a light goats(?) cheese and fried. Nothing complicated - with some shaved ham of the most amazing but delicate flavour. The cheese and ham platter from heaven.

Then followed a hand made ravioli stuffed with quail and served in sage butter. Simple stuff - well executed (but I guess it is a pain to make). My wife who is allergic to wheat had one of the most original pastas I have ever tasted - a buffalo mozarella and caramelized onion sauce on a gluten free pasta. I think it was a one-off but if so Stefano is a genius.

Mains however were a disappointment. The lamb was good - the potatos were excellent - but it did not sing. I can cook better lamb - and so can Stefano. Last time we were here the mains were an italian style roast chicken. Good -but not as good as Seans.

Desert was simple - vanilla and orange panacotta (but he called it something other than panacotta). He must have used some very bitter oranges and they offset the sweetness of a very sugary sauce. Fabulous and delicate again.

What this taught me though is that there is a sterility in the modern flavour concentration methods of cooking - and that some things can be obtained through balance rather than brute force.

This is not a restaurant of the modern fashion. The Hestor Blumenthals of the world dominate the debate because they are so darn clever. But it is real food done with a flair you will find few places in the world.

I know the readership of my main blog (and hence this) is London and New York - but if anyone has influence this deserves a place in the top 50 restaurants in the world... and it should be so rated.

John Hempton

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sausages, salad and wine

It was a busy weekend with multiple trips to the beach,  a visit to Alice (more on that later) and my son revealing that he has always thought of me as a "fat mutant zombie bloodsucking freak".  So dinner on Sunday (often elaborate) was really simple.  

Just sausages from the organic butcher in Randwick, fine fresh white bread from a run-of-the-mill (non chain) bakery, a french salad of beans, tomato and fresh basil, some home made tomato chutneys and a very fine bottle of wine.

Here was the wine.

Or in Euro because I gather you can still buy it for a suitably modest amount:

And yes it did come from the cellar and I have stored it since original issue.

And the pleasure of it all showed nothing needs be too complicated to be delicious if the family is loving and your son will forgive you for being a mutant zombie.

And the good wine helped.

John Hempton

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Well that was a disaster...

So I have been experimenting with pigs trotters.  Its the Fergus Henderson fan in me.  

But I have learnt a few lessons.

1).  When you boil up pigs trotters you need to strip the meat out whilst the pig trotter is warm.  Otherwise they become really difficult to handle.

2).  When you strip the meat and mix wiht the onion you better roll it into a sausage or put it in the terrine pretty quickly because as the fat congeals the meat will sort of stick together - and probably in an uncomfortable pattern.  

But even then I got to deal with a few issues.  Is there a difference between front-pigs feet (hands?) and rear feet with respect to the amount of meat?  Almost every trotter had nothing on it.  Just fat and gristle.  Yummy fat and gristle - but fat and gristle.  Is there any reader amongst my few who can answer that?  

And when I have finished with that I might explain the rest of the extent of the disaster.

John H

The joys of smoked bacon

Sitting on the stove at the moment is a pot with 450grams (say 1lb) of smoked bacon, twenty pigs trotters, a couple of onions, carrots, bay leaves, parsley, water.  Simmer for three hours.

I am going to pick apart the meat, stir in some caremalized onion, make a sausage and serve with more caremalized onion and some chives if I can find them...

What to do with the liquor... mix with stock, make ox tail risotto...

Unctious I guess...

I promise to let you know how it goes.


Friday, November 28, 2008

The joys of unsmoked bacon

The bacon recipe I gave was unsmoked.  You can smoke it at an intermediate stage - but my experiments have been mixed.  (You need someone to chop down a fruit tree for you because the wood is good for smoking.  Where is George Washington when you need him!)

Anyway unsmoked bacon is not fashionable - but it makes the best baked beans.  There is a wonderful baked beans recipe in Fergus Henderson's first cook book.  Works even better when you have made the bacon.  He insists on unsmoked bacon - and having done his recipe with both smoked and unsmoked varieties he is right.


Don't bring home the bacon - make it

This blog doesn’t have many readers – but one of them managed to ask a bacon recipe.

Easy enough.  Two thirds a cup of salt, one third sugar, small teaspoon of pink salt (sodium nitrite).  Mix it lots of spices including star anise.  If you want it to be sweet mix in extra sugar or honey or maple syrup.  I have never used maple syrup but the US recipes include it.  It just costs an absolute bomb in Australia.

I tend to go for spicy not sweet – but the I am not American.  The Americans are into sweet pork which they cook to a crispy candy cinder…

Anyway rub it all into a big slap of pork belly – skin on -  and put in a zip lock back.  Cure for a week turning the bag over regularly and making sure that the cure covers all the pork.
It will get awful wet in that bag as the cure sucks the liquid out of the pork.  Thick pork bellies take longer to cure – but I have always been a little sloppy about the seven days.

Preheat oven to 80-90 centigrade.  Some American recipes are at 200F – but just below boiling is the idea.  

Measure the temperature at 1.5 hours and then every 15 mins.  Stop about 65C.  It should smell great.

The books say remove the skin now whilst it is very warm.  

Let it cool.  Freezes well.  Keeps OK in the fridge - but a big pork belly is more bacon than you can handle in a week...

The liquid at the end of the brining process is probably carcinogenic.  

Eat some yourself before you give it to your family.  If you have botulism you want to kill yourself not your loved ones.  Even better - give it to the scraggy cat that hangs around asking for food.  Actually don't.  It will just encourage it.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Charcuterie in the age of terrorism

I went through a brief period of trying to cure my own pancetta.  Mostly super-spicy – mix say one gram of sodium nitrite with 300 grams of salt and an enormous number of spices (including my trusty star anise) and put it with a pork belly in the fridge in a zip lock plastic bag.
Turn the bag over every day for about 10 days and then wash and dry.  Roll it up and tie up very tightly with butchers twine and hang it under the house.  Hope the mould that grows is only white.  (All the white moulds are edible…)

The stuff is salty, very strong flavoured and delicious.
You can try making traditional bacon too – easy enough as long as you have an oven you can keep at 80 degrees centigrade for a couple of hours.

This is exciting stuff – real cookery – making exotic stuff from the cheap pork bellies you buy in Chinatown.  It also leads to hours of conversation with some Italian bloke you meet in Haberfield who suddenly thinks you are worthy of his time.

The problem of course is you need the sodium nitrite.  It’s the stuff that makes bacon pink, makes preserved meats carcinogenic and stops you getting botulism.
But sodium nitrite is hard to obtain because you can also make explosives out of it.  At least it is hard to obtain in Australia though it might not be in the US because the gun lobby has ensured its availability for the sort of nutcases that like to make their own gun powder and pack their own traditional rifles (or muskets).  

So here I am stuck in Australia in the age of terrorism, unable to find critical ingredients to make my bacon and wishing (just for once) that Australia had the National Rifle Association ensuring that I can obtain my core ingredients.

John Hempton

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On roasting a chook

There is a sort of Italian way to roast chickens (chooks).  At least I think it Italian because I see it in lots of Italian books and in Jamie Oliver who is essentially an Italian cook.

The way you do it is to roast the chook sitting in about half a cup of chicken stock.  The problem of course is that this makes the oven very wet – and nothing roasts very well.  The chicken will not brown.

So to fix this you chop herbs finely and mix with butter (or duck fat), lift the skin of the chicken – and (delicately) poke the fat between the skin and the flesh.  It should brown nicely then.

A very wet oven has an advantage – it is temperature buffered – and that means you can be a little imprecise when cook the bird.  It is probably OK plus or minus 10-15 minutes in the oven.
That makes it good for restaurants – whose customer ordering times are imprecise – or for home cooks distracted by work, children and all the other things that make you imprecise with an oven.  Indeed it seems that if there is an imprecise way of doing something that works well the Italians have perfected it.

Then there is an extreme French way of roasting a bird.  The best variant I know on the recipe is in the French Laundry cookbook – but I have seen variants on it in lots of French books.  The method is to brine the bird.

Let me explain.  Take a gallon of water (sorry to be non-metric – but enough water to cover the birds), a cup of salt, a cup of sugar, a lemon, half a hand of garlic very crushed and every odd herb in your fridge.  Boil it all up.  (I like adding star anise – a spice I over-use badly).  Let the water go stone cold.

Take the bird(s) and soak in the brine for eight hours (Thomas Keller says never to go too long – but I have no problem with up to 15 hours provided you wash the birds thoroughly after – but then Thomas Keller knows far more than me).  

The brine sucks out the water from the bird.  You need the salt and sugar concentration in the brine to be higher than in the bird otherwise you will get the osmotic process working the wrong way.  But you are left with a VERY dry bird.

Wash it thoroughly, and dry it.  Truss it (learn to do this or some pretentious French cook will throw a knife at you).
Let it dry a little further in the fridge.  

You want it to be DRY.  Got that.

Then put it in an oven with nothing else in it (so you release no moisture). 

As it is bone dry the skin will – if you are not careful – burn to a cinder.

So place some foil over the bird.  DO NOT SEAL IT.  Just place the foil over the top loosely – a sort of heat reflector.

This will produce a bird that is wonderfully moist.  The “moist” flavour of a chicken comes from fat, not water – and sucking all the water out with osmotic pressure leaves a bird where the fat has nothing much to dilute it.  Great moist flavour.

But there is a problem here.  No moisture means no temperature buffering.  No temperature buffering means that the cooking time has to be really precise – plus or minus say three minutes.  This is NOT for the sloppy cook.  It is darn difficult to do in a restaurant setting either which is – I guess why it is Thomas Keller and not Jamie Oliver.

And I got another problem – which is that I want to get the bird out of the oven based on the internal temperature (150F – sorry – no metric but my digital read meat thermometer is imperial).  But when I stick my meat thermometer in I puncture the skin and out flows those lovely juices I am trying to maximize – so I got to work some other way out.  (Help anyone).  

Now the French method of doing the chook is wonderful – by far the better bird – but it is not for the sloppy or faint-hearted.  Try it.

And if you have a solution for getting the measurement right without puncturing the skin let me know.

John Hempton


I write a finance blog which is well read (see the profile).  As a finance type I cook to reduce stress.


I am going to jot a very irregular cooking blog down – also to reduce stress.


Await my piece on roasting chickens (chooks if you are an Australian).